Fannie Lou, Curtis and Montgomery County Justice

Confederate memorial, Winona, Mississippi

(This post is part of a series concerning Curtis Flowers, an innocent man convicted of a horrific crime that has divided a small Mississippi town.  Information on the Flowers case can be found here.)

By Alan Bean

I had always assumed that the confederate memorial in Winona, Mississippi had been destroyed in 1978 along with the courthouse.  It seemd a bit counter-intuitive, but there was no sign of Civil War nostalgia on the grounds of the new courthouse where Curtis Flowers was convicted of murder in the summer of 2010.

Curtis has been tried for the murder of four people in a Winona furniture store in July, 1996.  He has been convicted four times.  Two trials ended in hung juries.  Three convictions were overturned by the Mississippi Supreme Court, which is currently reviewing his most recent conviction.

Meanwhile, Curtis sits on Parchman prison’s death row.

Friends of Justice is convinced that Curtis Flowers is innocent, but you would be hard pressed to find a white resident of Winona, Mississippi who agrees with us.  At Flower’s 2010 trial, it became apparent, perhaps for the first time, that District Attorney Doug Evans and his investigator, John Johnson, had decided Curtis Flowers was the killer less than three hours before the murder scene was discovered.  The only evidence connecting Curtis with the crime at that time was a check for three days wages found on the desk of the slain Bertha Tardy.  The check was made out to Curtis Flowers.  Though this hardly constituted evidence of wrongdoing, Evans and Johnson centered their investigation on Flowers from the beginning; no other suspects or alternative theories of the crime were ever considered.

The former site of the Montgomery County Jail in Winona, Mississippi

Melanie Wilmoth and I were in Winona this Monday to visit with Archie and Lola Flowers, Curtis’s parents.  We were driving home from a local restaurant when I asked about the location of the old county jail and courthouse.

In June of 1963, that Fannie Lou Hamer, Annell Ponder, Sue Johnson and Lawrence Guyot were savagely beaten by several local police officers and a state trooper at the county jail.  A few days later, they were arraigned at the county courthouse.  Their crime: demanding to be served in the white-only restaurant of Winona’s segregated bus depot two years after the federal government integrated bus depots, train stations and airports across the South.

Archie Flowers didn’t answer my question about the old courthouse, he just guided the car in the direction of downtown Winona.  “The courthouse used to be right here,” Lola told me, pointing to the Montgomery County library.

There it stood, the conferate memorial that graces virtually every courthouse in the old South.  This one had been erected in 1909, just 44 years after they drove old Dixie down.   Southern pride still burned strong.  The monument was dedicated “To the Confederacy President Jefferson Davis and the soldiers who fought for state rights.”

Even in 1909, southerners embraced the historical fiction that the War of Northern Aggression had nothing to do with the South’s “peculiar institution.”

MLK display in the Winona libraryThe next morning, Melanie and I returned to the library.  A Civil Rights display featuring pictures of Martin Luther King Jr. greeted us as we entered the room.  I was impressed.  Mississippi is one of three southern states where citizens can choose to celebrate Martin Luther King Day or Robert E. Lee Day, whichever floats your boat.  A Civil Rights display was above and beyond the call of civic duty.

I moved to the desk and asked if the library had any information about the old courthouse and county jail.  “I’m not sure,” the librarian told me.  “If we have anything it will be in the book we’ve got on Montgomery County history.”

She plucked an imposing tome from the library shelves.  It was one of those local histories that most rural counties produce every half century or so.  This one had been published in 1994, three decades after Fannie Lou Hamer and friends were savagely beaten at the county jail and three years before Curtis Flowers went on trial the first time.

Like most county histories, the book began with a section on local history.  Although there was an extensive section on the Native American people who occupied the county before the arrival of white settlers, there was no discussion of slavery.

The book featured articles on every white family with roots in the county and several hundred pictures, but although Montgomery County is 45% African-American, not a single black face appeared anywhere.  Melanie and I weren’t the first readers to notice this.  One reader had scrawled his disgust on the table of contents page.  “Sorry people,” the message read, “us black folks are not listed in family histories.  Apparently we don’t exist though the copyright is 1994.  Go figure racist white folks.  Go Obama!”

The book’s extensive section on the Civil War merely reproduced documents from the war era with not even a passing reference to slavery.  The war was all about Abraham Lincoln’s desire to “destroy all the institutions of the South and withdraw from her people the constitutional guarantees for the protection to property and the right to enjoy the same.”

A visitor to Montgomery County would have no idea that black people had ever lived in Montgomery County or that slavery and Jim Crow segregation were integral to the county’s legacy.  No wonder the note writer was confused and angry.

But that was 1994 and this is 2012.  I doubt you would have seen a civil rights display in the Winona library back when Curtis Flowers was first arrested in 1997.

At first blush, historical myopia and denial have little relevance to the fairness of the Montgomery County criminal justice system.   Fannie Lou Hamer, Annell Ponder, June Johnson and the other civil rights leaders arrested at Winona’s bus depot in 1963 weren’t simply denied justice; their captives took sadistic pleasure in their ability to beat and sexually humiliate the men and women in their control.  Thanks to pressure from the Kenney White House, the officers were tried in federal court, but an all white, all-male jury acquitted them after deliberating for a matter of minutes.  The law of the land did not apply to black people (especially black civil rights activists) in 1963.

How much had changed when Curtis Flowers went to trial for the first time 34 years later?

A lot.  When Doug Evans illegally kept black residents off the jury, the Mississippi Supreme Court reversed the verdict.  When, at a subsequent trial, five black jurors were selected, all five voted to acquit Mr. Flowers while all seven white voted to acquit.

These facts suggest radical change mixed with a disturbing degree of historical continuity.  Things have changed for the better; but not nearly enough.  That is why the case of Curtis Flowers and hundreds of other Mississippi defendants must be viewed through the lens of the Magnolia State’s troubled racial history.  Did Curtis Flowers get a fair trial in 1997, in 2010, or at any time in between?  You be the judge.